Voices of Simmons

Women: Put Your Oxygen Masks on – FIRST, please.

Managing Director of the Institute for Leadership at Simmons University, Susan Brady, explains the “oxygen mask” analogy and gives a voice to the critical barriers that women have to overcome in order to further their leadership advancement in the workplace.


Recently, I spoke at a gathering of executive MBA students and “professional fellows” at a Boston-area University. The topic was the title of the book I authored, Mastering Your Inner Critic & 7 Other High Hurdles to Advancement – How the Best Women Leaders Practice Self Awareness to Change What Really Matters. I began as I typically do, by briefly qualifying what it takes to reach gender parity in leadership and how my talk was focused on just one (yet critical) aspect: the role women can play in changing the game for gender parity by making some internal shifts.

The rest of the job to be done should we see gender parity in leadership in our lifetime, I explained, could all fall under the banner of “organizational work.” Like shifting deeply entrenched thinking that all leaders have (inclusion work) and overhauling the systems (policies, etc.) that make it easy for old patterns of thinking to stay the same. I (thought) I made clear that we were gathered this evening to think about what we women can do to shift in ways that could facilitate our own leadership advancement. This starts with the glorious opportunity before each of us to create a more compassionate and self-aware narrative – and when we speak to do so from a more “centered” place. This means making moment-to-moment choices like:

  • Coming back to a place of self compassion when we are introduced to our “not good enoughs.” This requires some sweet self-talk (and yes, I still call myself “Suze” when I catch myself being super self-critical and can’t snap out of it).
  • Resisting the urge to take on more, and instead of doing it ourselves, asking for help or re-assessing our time.
  • Creating time to reflect and connect with others about what it is we wish to manifest for ourselves.

At the end of my talk, I got a question/comment from a woman in the audience that went something like this: “it seems that you are saying the work is on women to change.” I sighed. And, I thanked her. Clearly, I didn’t do a good enough job articulating the case for women to “put on their oxygen mask first.”  

Let me be clear: as women explore the shifts I mention above, it doesn’t mean we sit back and navel gaze while being trampled by inequitable treatment like being treated like sexual objects, being talked over, being passed over for promotions because it “seems” more risky to promote a woman who has potential than it does to promote a man. We can and need to stand up to these and other inequities. We need to stand up from a place of CENTER – from a place where we can be heard, not dismissed by others as “overly emotional” or “angry.” The “oxygen mask” is the same as giving yourself a moment to get centered so you feel grounded, clear and can speak up thoughtfully.

Let’s face it: we women at times can make it pretty hard for ourselves. By being critical of ourselves and others, doing too much, not slowing down to think about what jazzes us and what we really want to do, not taking time for ourselves and often putting our self-care last on the list, or refraining from advocating for what we really want. When we advocate or make a request or attempt to point out something that didn’t feel good to us from that place of frenetic emotion or fatigue or frustrated energy, or we sink into a state of “my voice doesn’t matter so I won’t speak up” we lessen the power we could have in that moment.

No, we women are not to blame for the conscious and unconscious biases and visible and invisible inequities we find ourselves facing on our leadership journey. We won’t see gender parity in our lifetime if leaders in organizations – people in positions of power – don’t take action. The main reason I stand up and invite women to look within is this: our leadership is desperately needed in the world. Self-mastery is vital if we women are to harness the energy and voice required to invoke change. If we are feeling overly critical of ourselves, we won’t bring our full selves to the discussion. If we are angry and speak from a place of harshness and contempt, we will turn away the very people we need to have listen to us with interest.

Hello, Oxygen. I am taking a deep breath.


This blog was originally published by McGraw-Hill, the publisher of Susan Brady's most recent book, Mastering Your Inner Critic

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